President Obama returns to the White House, but he leads a country that—after a bruising year of campaigning—remains painfully fractured.
The results trickled in Tuesday night showing an almost impeccably engineered victory for Obama. He received an estimated 303 electoral votes, while Republican Mitt Romney managed to nab 206, according to the Associated Press. It was enough to secure victory without Florida—where Obama was maintaining a tight lead with the vote tally still incomplete.
When TV networks called the decisive battleground state of Ohio for Obama shortly after 11 pm, his supporters in Chicago’s McCormick Place burst into applause as The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” played. The election was an endorsement of policies that had stopped a dangerous economic collapse, but left the country muddling through a recovery where millions are unemployed, trapped by underwater mortgages, and surviving on less income.
The polls consistently showed Obama possessed one virtue that Romney lacked—trust with voters, an ability to understand and empathize with their problems. This was not the transformative election of four years ago that was powered by the ideas of “hope and change,” but a tactical exercise that drew on competing ideologies. Obama sidetracked his campaign with a lackadaisical performance in the first presidential debate, yet displayed his mettle as the New York City-area coped with the destruction of Hurricane Sandy.
“The task of perfecting our union moves forward,” Obama said in his victory speech. “We are an American family. And we rise and fall together as one nation, as one people.”
“Progress will come in first and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path,” he continued. “But that common bond is where we must begin … And whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you. I have learned from you.
“Democracy can be messy and complicated,” Obama said in a bipartisan appeal, “but these arguments we have are a mark of our liberty.”
Ironically, the campaign that led to Obama’s victory speech was one of calculated division. The president never bothered to contest vast swaths of the country like the Deep South, given his pillars of strength along the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Great Lakes. Negative ads attached to Obama and Romney filled TV screens.
The Obama campaign embraced an aggressive—some would say cynical--ground game to capture the 270 electoral votes needed to win, deploying scarce resources in a way reminiscent of warfare. Obama provided interviews to local TV stations for Election Day as volunteers knocked on doors and made phone calls to maximize turnout. The effort proved essential, with the president securing narrow margins in crucial swing states like Ohio and Virginia.
The exit polls revealed a painful ethnic split—with white male voters backing Romney by a significant margin and minority groups like Latinos and African-Americans standing by the president. Obama carried cities such as Cleveland, while most voters in the Buckeye State’s exurban and rural counties sided with Romney.
Calls for bipartisanship are easy, both in triumph and the disappointing afterglow of a loss.
“This is a time of great challenges for America and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation,” Romney said in a six-minute concession speech. “The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”
But the debate among Republican strategists that unfolded during the night was not about how to compromise with Democrats. It was about bridging the demographic divide in order to win in 2016, since the GOP base of white voters is shrinking as a share of the electorate. Romney notably alienated Latinos with a call during the GOP primary for the self-deportation of illegal immigrants.
“We’re going to have an inter-party fist fight to find out how the GOP can be electable again,” Republican consultant Mike Murphy said on NBC News. “We’ve got to modernize conservatism to fit with the demographics of 21st century, not the 1980s. There’s going to be a fight with the mathematicians (demographics) and the priests (ideology) over how to appeal to the country—immigration reform, gay marriage. It’s going to be a slugfest.”
With Congress set to return to session, GOP lawmakers have doubled-down on their opposition to the tax increases being advocated by Obama as a way to reduce the budget deficit. The president campaigned on letting the tax cuts first introduced by George W. Bush expire for Americans earning more than $250,000 a year. Republicans—who retained their control of the House of Representatives—are determined to block that agenda.
House Speaker John Boehner said in a Tuesday speech that “our Republican majority has been the primary line of defense for the American people. “The American people want solutions and, tonight, they've responded by renewing our House Republican majority,” the Ohio congressman said. “With this vote, the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates. … We will never let you down.”
The gridlock threatens the economy. Looming on the horizon next year is the fiscal cliff—a mix of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts—that if unresolved could hurl the United States back into recession. Both Democrats and Republicans called on the other side to compromise as the ballots were counted.
Former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs slammed GOP lawmakers for ignoring the negative public opinion about Capitol Hill. “When you’re approval rating is lower than the national drinking age, you’re not doing well,” Gibbs said.
But second terms have been problematic for recent presidents who have also found their appeal flag. Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace after the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan muddled through the outrage provoked by the Iran-Contra arms deal. Bill Clinton was impeached. And Bush left the White House with the country reeling from the burst of the housing market.
Obama has said he will enact budgetary reform that trims the budget deficit—which has stayed above $1 trillion for his entire first term. He plans to reform immigration policy and bring combat troops back from the Afghan War. All the while, his administration will be implementing ObamaCare and the new financial industry regulations from Dodd-Frank.
Karl Rove, famed as Bush’s elections guru, summarized the challenge on Fox News.
“Second terms are difficult for presidents.”